Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Joy Schaverien: “Trauma, on a collective or an individual scale, can freeze the imagination”

Joy Schaverien is a Jungian psychoanalyst and art psychotherapist, and works in private practice.  She writes on various topics that interest her that usually come out of her clinical practice, including the book ‘Boarding School Syndrome: the psychological trauma of the ‘privileged’ child’.  We discussed imagination, play, school, and how education can either enable the imagination to flourish, or can damage it substantially.

I wonder what in your observation are the conditions for a vibrant and healthy imagination?

I think psychologically we think about the child that learns to play.  I don’t know if you’ve read Donald Winnicott’s work, but he talks about “playing in the presence of another”, which is the thing that we all learn to do when we’re very young if we have the right environment, which is somebody like the mother maybe sitting there.  The child is getting on playing, talking to themselves, or inventing a game, but the mother’s there as a containing presence, or the parent.

So very much I think the environment has to be right.  Somebody who’s frightened, or worried, it’s very hard.  Although some people retreat into the imagination then, that’s the other thing of course.

Can you say a bit more about that?

What immediately came to my mind was thinking about people in extreme conditions of imprisonment, and that kind of thing.  Some people will resort – I was thinking of Brian Keenan’s book, and thinking about resorting to the imagination, or stuff you learned earlier on.  But that’s a different kind of sort of imagination because that’s fantasy.  Real free play links to something social doesn’t it I think.

I’m particularly interested with that question of why it is that people stop being able to imagine the future.  That it feels like 20, 30 years ago as a culture we did lots of imagining what the future could be, and we seem to have given up on the future rather.  We sort of tend to look toward the past more.

Well 20 or 30 years ago we had the threat of nuclear war, very powerfully, and that imagination was very frightening.  You were probably a child but you would remember it.

Very well indeed.

Because I remember my children, or one in particular, being very frightened by that, hearing the adults talking about it.  That gets in the way of imagination.  So there’s positive imagining and then I suppose there’s negative imagining too.

If somebody presented to you as a psychoanalyst and said, “I can’t imagine the future at all.  I can’t see beyond the present moment.”  What would that suggest to you?

It really depends.  I would want to go back into their history and find out what it is that’s made the possibility of a future so daunting.  I mean the thing is you’re talking on a very wide scale, and most of the time I work on a miniscule scale.  It’s part of the same thing, because every individual makes up the whole, kind of thing.  So what would I think?  I would think something pretty bad is happening right now, probably.  Or something very good is happening.  You know, a Buddhist would say that’s the right way to be.

Yeah, that is true.

It’s about the difference between living in the present and being fully aware, and the present being all there is, or there’s living in the present in a very fearful way because you can’t dare to even consider what might happen next.  You know, you’re linking it to trauma, I think that’s right.  Trauma on a collective scale or on an individual scale can certainly freeze the imagination.

You’ve done a lot of work and research around schooling, in particular the impact of boarding school on people.  I wonder if you could just say a bit about that, and in particular how you see that kind of education impacts on people’s imagination.  People who go through that system.

I would be loathe to generalise because you get all sorts of people who survive all sorts of things and are resilient, and have had good experiences before.  Early parenting is huge.  Early parenting, a loving, physical, present, attentive environment for growing in in the first years is a foundation.

Now many people who go to boarding school come from a tradition where the parents aren’t very good at that because they went to boarding school themselves, so they delegate the care to nannies.  I mean not everyone comes from huge wealthy families.  Often people who were in the military or diplomatic core, whatever, also sent their children to boarding school, and a lot of people aspire to boarding school.  So you’ve got all sorts of early histories that people bring before they go to boarding school, but my contention is that a child in boarding school lives without love.  That’s the bottom line.  And if they go at 6, 7 or 8, they are profoundly traumatised by that.

When people say, “Well it didn’t do me any harm” which a lot of people say, and then you stop, and you pause, and you ask them the question, “Do you remember the first day?” some people will go, “Oh, well of course I remember the first day, it was terrible, you know.”  There are so many stories of people who were really excited about going to boarding school.  It had been built up.  And then there they are standing on the threshold of this huge institution, these tiny little children with a monster stranger, who is called the Headmaster, or a Headmistress.

Roald Dahl describes that beautifully.  It’s this monstrous man wandering around “like a shark”, I think he says.  They’re not all like sharks.  But they’re strangers, and even when the school is really caring – and the schools really do aspire to be caring now, they’ve got school counsellors and all the rest of it – it doesn’t get away from the fact the child is leaving everything that’s familiar.  And they’re traumatised.  I’d say nearly all of them.  Some people remember the first day.  Others don’t remember it at all.  They cannot remember the first day.  It’s just a blank.  That also indicates trauma to me.  So it’s the memory that’s etched in the child’s mind, and there are lots of books that have been written about it, people writing their memoirs often talk about that first day.

When I talked to George Monbiot about it, he said that he felt like imagination was actively discouraged in the one that he went to, and that he felt that the emphasis of the whole place was actually on looking to the past.  It was all about singing songs to how great this country was and General this, and Lord that.  There was no sense of looking forward, and creativity and all of that sort of stuff was really seen as deeply suspicious.

Yes, I mean I think that’s probably right.  I don’t know what they do now.  The traditional ones probably still do that, look at the past.  But I think the point about boarding school is that the child grows up in an environment without love and without the opportunity for reverie.  Children in boarding schools are not allowed to be bored.  They’re homesick.  I call that bereaved actually.

They’ve lost everything in their lives, and they’re not given time to mourn.  They’re chivvied along, “Come on, you’ll soon forget about it, go and do sport, do this, do that.”  So there is no time for reverie.  There’s no time for boredom.  People lie in the bath, and soak, and think.  Well, I certainly do.  You know, your body relaxes and your imagination wanders.  We know people come up with good ideas in the bath.

Boarding schools, in the people I’ve talked to, and I’ve done an awful lot of talking to people about this as you can imagine, generally a bath, it’s either cold showers first thing in the morning – you know, freezing cold showers – you don’t have time to think then, or it was three minute baths.  You get in with another person, or you get in, and then somebody else gets in the water after you.  That was in girls’ schools mainly.  I think the boys’ schools were mainly cold showers and the girls’ schools were three minute baths.  I’ve got friends who cannot just relax in the bath.  It’s not something you do.  You get in the bath and you get out as quickly as possible.

So there’s no time for reverie.  There’s no time to be bored.  There’s no time to sort of sit around doing nothing much.  And everything is regimented, so it’s like you’re in a prison.  You’re told what to wear, you’re told when to eat, you’re told what to eat.  Again, that has changed, quite a bit now.  People do get a choice of what to eat and schools are much more human.  Doesn’t matter.  They’re still not with their parents.

There’s no-one to talk about their worries as they’re falling asleep.  They have to parent themselves as they’re falling asleep.  Children cry under the pillows.  Their bed is not a very comfortable place very often, because they’re alone there, or they’re with a lot of strange children, so it’s not a refuge.  It’s not a place of safety.  So I think the whole atmosphere of boarding in school is not conducive to the imagination.  I really think that.

And also, the arts are not – apart from music, music has saved the lives of many children who went to boarding school – but the arts on the whole are not respected apart from that.  A lot of people are really into music who went to boarding school because that was something that gave them an escape I guess.  A way of expressing themselves, a way of imagining.  But on the whole, the arts weren’t respected, not really.  There might have been an art room but I don’t have an impression that the arts were hugely respected.

The other thing that happens is that in an ordinary good enough family – and I’m not idealising families, some families are awful and some children are better off in boarding school – when it’s going well, the parent responds to the baby.  The baby chooses when it wants to sleep, and it chooses when it’s hungry, and it lets you know, or when it wants to be changed.  That carries on, with the right environment, with parents that are attuned, the child grows and is listened to, develops and takes from the environment what it needs.

In boarding school it’s the other way round.  The child has to fit into a regime.   And so people are not attuning to them.  What has happened to most children that I speak to, most adults that were these children, is that they lost their families forever really.  So they may not have had that kind of attunement early on, or they may have had a nanny who really was attuned to them, and then she’s sent packing when the child goes to boarding school.

People say, “Oh, day schools are awful, and children get bullied in day schools too.”  Absolutely, I totally agree.  But they don’t have to stay the night.  They don’t have to live with those bullies.  I hear terrible things, and people who experienced terrible things at night don’t rest properly.  They don’t sleep properly.  And the imagination needs sleep.

When your country is governed by people who have largely experienced that kind of traumatic childhood that you’re talking about, what kind of leaders does it produce?  What does it do to the adults who then are in charge of making those decisions?

The schools were formed initially to create just those leaders – the people who put their men before themselves, who will look after their animals and their men, and not notice their own feelings.  But in doing that there’s a certain kind of tradition to that, and a way of doing it.  What I think it does, I mean, it’s terribly difficult to say because I don’t like diagnosing people outside a consulting room.

On the other hand, I think that it has a tremendous subtle impact on our society, because these schools have been the thing to aspire to for years, for generations.  And the leaders were made that way, the military and the government.  So what happens in boarding school is a child may feel quite a lot of emotion, especially when they’re first at boarding school.  They are taught that really, “Get on with it, you mustn’t cry.”

Older children or the stronger children, or the apparently stronger children, hate to see weakness.  So often the vulnerable get bullied.  You’re showing weakness, so I’m going to punish you for that weakness, because I also feel weak but I don’t want anyone to know, so I’m going to show how strong I am by making you, who is weak, feel even weaker, really.  I think that happens on a larger scale in society.  So we have people with disabilities.  Well let’s take their benefits away, because that’s quite easy.

I don’t blame this just on boarding school, but it’s a whole system, of which boarding school is a big part, and which a lot of the leaders of the last Tory government went to boarding school.  And so policies are made where I think it’s quite unconscious that you can take from the vulnerable because they’re not really in a position to fight back.  I think that tradition does go deep, deep in a society and it’s a really fault line that runs through this society.

And when people are traumatised, how does trauma affect our imagination, and our ability to imagine the future in a positive way?

I think in all kinds of subtle ways.  I mean, it freezes the imagination.  It freezes everything really. If you’ve been traumatised, you can see it actually.  Sometimes with people who come to the consulting room, they are frozen.  You can see the child is frozen somehow in the adult.  It sounds a bit like magical thinking, but then I am a therapist!

What effect does trauma have on the imagination?  Well, it stops it, I think.  One of the reasons I’m an art therapist, or one of the things that art therapy is very good for, is unfreezing the imagination.  It’s a way of people not realising what they’re doing.  So quite often I’ll ask people to draw something, and then they’ll be surprised at what they’ve drawn.

I don’t know whether you’ve seen my book but there’s a case about somebody who was completely traumatised by boarding school and gradually, through art, these things came to light that he couldn’t really remember consciously.  I think that’s what happens.  People can’t consciously remember stuff but you can start to help people to move on from it, and then their whole being lightens if you know what I mean.  I think then the future does not look so bleak, maybe, or maybe then there are possibilities.  Because really you’re asking I think this on a much larger scale.

You go to your iPhone in default rather than sitting looking out of the train window.  So I don’t know how much research has been done into what that is doing to our imaginations, but I guess we’re evolving in a way, and changing.

Certainly in this country, children are having to perform for SATS at 7 or something, or maybe it’s older than that, but they’re having to perform to show how good the school is, rather than they’re learning because learning is such fun, and isn’t it a wonderful thing?  Teachers that inspire, don’t have to time to inspire anymore because they’ve got so many boxes to tick and forms to fill in.  So all of that is pressure.  And the lack of trust.

What would education that maximised the imagination look like?

I used to teach in art school many years ago, when we weren’t ruled by too many rules.  That was pretty good.  It was teaching adults to play.  It was going out into the environment and interacting with other people, doing unusual things to make people think.

Experiments, enquiry, questioning.  That’s the thing.  It’s like asking questions and finding how delightful it is.  For a long time, because I trained in art, I thought science was terribly boring.  Actually it’s about enquiry.  So any education really needs to be about questioning, doesn’t it?  Not accepting what’s given to you, but just asking questions.  Teaching people to think.  To question, not just receive.


  1. Helen La Trobe
    November 29, 2017

    Hey Rob (Bop?!), I have been enjoying reading these interviews. I guess trauma and depression are related… This interview made me think of the years I was deeply depressed and how thinking about the future was an impossibility at that time. I couldn’t even think about the next day, because I didn’t want it to wake up or the next day to come, let alone trying to be creative about the future. All I could see in the future was a dark endless tunnel. Now it’s changed, I’m better, and I see problems and try to think of creative solutions (but not getting support can hamper progress!). So along those lines…perhaps interviewing someone who works with people suffering depression could also be interesting…? Or perhaps it’s too close to trauma to make a difference. The other thing that crossed my mind as I read, particularly of the rigidity of boarding school life and the lack of space to question or think or daydream, is whether religious upbringing has an impact. I say this because I have had two very close Muslim friends here, one past colleague (female) and one present friend (male…and im pointing that out so it’s clear it’s not a gender impact) and both seem to really lack imagination … It’s only two people, I know, so not representative, but I was shocked how similar they are. They don’t question, they don’t think for themselves, they don’t seem to imagine. They do as they are told, and that’s about all. They have no initiative. I wondered if perhaps being brought up in a strict Muslim family can impact on thought, perhaps because they are told what to do as they grow up, and then they are sent to Islamic school. So they are quite confined in thought and action..and theres no need to use initiative. They are so similar….but it may just be coincidence. Anyway…just a few thoughts.

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